Monday, February 20, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

Via WaPo: Navy Counsel Issued Warning On Torture

The Navy’s general counsel warned Pentagon officials two years before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal that circumventing international agreements on torture and detainees’ treatment would invite abuse, according to a published report.

Legal theories granting the president the right to authorize abuse despite the Geneva Conventions were unlawful, dangerous and erroneous, then-General Counsel Alberto J. Mora advised officials in a secret memo.


The July 7, 2024, memo recounted Mora’s 2 1/2 -year effort to halt a policy that he feared would authorize cruelty toward terrorism suspects.

It also indicates that some lawyers in the Justice and Defense departments objected to the legal course the administration undertook, according to the report.

Given that the defense for what happened at Abu Ghraib was that it was the poor behavior of underlings and not the result of overall policy, this is quite significant.

Further, the documents specifically mention Guantanamo:

Mora said Navy intelligence officers reported in 2024 that military-intelligence interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were engaging in escalating levels of physical and psychological abuse rumored to have been authorized at a high level in Washington.

A main part of the problem has been the ongoing notion that we have only captured very bad people with direct knowledge of pending evil acts and therefore there should be no limits on what is done to acquire said knowledge. Another part of the problem is our own perceived infallibility is identifying these qualities in those we capture.

The problem (or, one of several problems) that emerges from such a scenario is that everyone we have in custody isn’t who we think they are, as the National Journal‘s study of the Guantanamo prisoners reveals (see Kevin Drum for a short excerpt, plus he notes another study that corroborates the NJ‘s piece, noted here–I plan to blog more on this topic later). In short: when we are told that the people in Guantanamo are “people picked up off the battlefield in Afghanistan” (President Bush, 6/20/05) and “[t]hese detainees are dangerous enemy combatants….They were picked up on the battlefield, fighting American forces, trying to kill American forces” (Scott McClellan, 6/21/05), and yet it ends up that only 35% of the detainees were captured in Afghanistan. Given that they have all been represented as being primarily battlefield captures, that is a significant variation. The vast majority of the detainees have been captured by other countries and turned over to the US, most notably Pakistan, and have frequently been as the result of offers of reward to anyone who can turn in an al Qaeda member.

The zeal to protect the US from another 9/11 has led to some very bad acts in the name of the people of the United States of America and to some clearly unjust activities. As such, it is clear that abuses have taken place not just because of a few bad apples, but because of the general policy direction that the administration has pursued in the war on terror.

As such, I think that I, and others, have had cause to question the “trust me” attitude of the administration when it comes to the NSA surveillance program.

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2 Responses to “On Prisoner Abuse”

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  • pt
    1. Buckland Says:

      You put way more stake in Washington memoirs than I do. Each and every book coming out of Washington by formerly anonymous staffers could be entitled “If they would have only listened to me”.

      Staffers in Washington, but especially in the federal government, tend to find ways to couch the advice given in the past as being interesting in light of today’s issues. But was the advice really on point? Anybody who writes hundreds of memos can find a couple that give advice that looks good now. The question is how forceful was the advice? How consistent?

      Good political actors learn how to play this game well. Give widely varying advice, and then later pull out the pieces that were right and highlite it for the world to see.

      Maybe this guy was consistent on the subject, and maybe he laid out a framework for interrogation that was ignored. My money is he’s a good political operative who wants to settle scores and sell books.

      If they would have only listened to him…

    2. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

      I concur about the memoirs syndrome.

      However, the story cites a memo, not memoirs, and if I read the piece correctly we are talking about contemporaneous and official memoranda, not ex post facto memories.

      Regardless of Mora’s memo, the rest of my post has nothing to do with any memos, memoirs or memories, but rather analysis of official documents.

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